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In the latest issue of the RSA Journal, Ben Lucas argued that now was the time for public services to be “mobilisers of social capacity” rather than just “delivery silos” (‘State of the Nation’, RSA Journal Winter 2009).

Both the main political parties are latching on to this theme and co-production is becoming the new orthodoxy across the political spectrum – in part driven of course by the public spending straightjacket.

Over in the blue corner David Cameron says his focus in government would be on empowering individuals, families and communities to “create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop”. While in the red corner, Chief Treasury Secretary, Liam Byrne, argues the future is about mobilising both individuals and communities to design and deliver public services.

Do they both mean the same thing? That’s tricky because the debate at the moment is largely being conducted at a level of abstraction and political positioning.

The Conservatives emphasise the role of the market, the voluntary sector and families: Labour highlights the role of communities, frontline staff and social action. But Labour does not rule out the private sector any more than the Tories discount the role of social enterprise. And both parties say they are committed to enhancing the interests of the disadvantaged and deprived.

Moreover, while both Labour and Conservative can give examples of initiatives that embody their vision, neither is able to translate their big picture ideas into a cohesive policy approach that approximates to a systemic programme for government.

So here are some principles that give greater definition to the concept of co-production and act as tests of the coherence of the respective parties’ policies.

First, make co-production part of mainstream policy making. Individuals and communities will often respond positively if they are simply presented with the opportunity to make a contribution to service delivery. It doesn’t require legislation or prescription, just intelligently framed policy practice that draws on social marketing skills and insights.

For example, in the area in which I live recycling levels have moved from a third to half in the space of six months by the simple expedient of the local authority issuing us with bins and collection arrangements for all the different types of refuse and communicating clearly how and when to use the new system.

Second, wherever possible turn budgets over to individuals.  Money talks and empowers people to buy the services they need. By April 2011 a third of all adults in receipt of adult social care will be receiving Individual Budgets giving them far greater control over their daily lives. Spending public money in this way not only leads to better outcomes for users but also results in more effective spend of existing budgets.

If this approach works for complex services such as adult social care why not apply it to other areas such as children with special needs? Or why not route public funding for childcare and further and higher education through the demand side?

Third, empower communities with a menu of options that enables local people to decide how they want to be involved in running their estate, neighbourhood, town or village. The menu should range from consultation to control. It could incentivise communities to deliver services and contribute to the wellbeing of their area by delegating budgets or offering rebates on local charges in return for taking on specific functions.

Fourth, be prepared to regulate and incentivise. Individuals and communities do not always act in an altruistic fashion: they can be self-interested and short-sighted. Nudge may have to become shove. Parents who don’t send their children to school are rightly fined. Universal metering of water will almost certainly be necessary if we are going to conserve and use supplies sustainably. Financial incentives are necessary to move us from a culture where we use energy to one where we create and feed it into the national grid.

Fifth, protect the interests of the most deprived. Those at the bottom of the pile can potentially gain hugely from co-production. But they will need extra support to make the most of the opportunities offered by choice, entitlement and community empowerment initiatives. With the detailed data now at our disposal we should be linking deprivation funding to individuals and families and giving them a say or even a ‘lock’ on how the money is used to support (and where appropriate conditionalise) their development and social mobility.

Sixth, don’t underestimate the continuing importance and role of government. Co-production requires intelligent and co-ordinated policy making nationally, and effective agencies and authorities with the skills to shape and steer the implementation of this agenda locally.

The debate about co-production needs to move from the theoretical to the practical. What approaches work best in which policy areas? When to exhort, when to nudge when to incentivise and when to regulate. These are the issues for discussion. This is the agenda we must now address.

Robert Hill is a former adviser to Tony Blair. He now works as an independent policy analyst and chairs the RSA Opening Minds Steering Group.


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